Gadamer died at age 102 in 2002, three years after this biography made its appearance in German. While Gadamer provided some autobiographical writings, including Philosophical Apprenticeships (1977; English 1985), Grondin's necessarily incomplete biography, admirably translated by Joel Weinsheimer, is the fullest account we have of a long life that intersected other monumental philosophical figures of the twentieth century, such as Martin Heidegger, Jürgen Habermas, Karl Jaspers, and Jacques Derrida. This biography offers invaluable information about lesser-known philosophers who influenced Gadamer and about German academic life in the last century. We even learn about Gadamer's favorite bourbon.
Gadamer's activities during the National Socialist period in Germany, and then in Russian-occupied Germany after the war, occupy much of the book. Grondin bends in a way worthy of Cirque du Soleil to place Gadamer's "dexterity"—in relation to National Socialism and to Stalinist communism—in the best possible light. Grondin, who tells us he was treated as a "son" by Gadamer, does not want to notice anything troubling about Gadamer ending letters "Heil Hitler" and then, when the Russians enter the picture, speaking of the "working classes" in glowing terms. In a defensive mode about Gadamer's collaborations, Grondin slips into contradictions. He deems Gadamer "unpolitical" at several points and, at other times, as a "thorn in the flesh" of political officials. What does not pass so easily are those moments when, for example, readers must cringe as Grondin seeks "to emphasize that Gadamer had many Jewish friends." Other "sons" of Gadamer persist in this kind of protectionist activity, rather than presenting questions that philosophical hermeneutics—a philosophy of the question—might address, such as whether prudence/phronesis ought always to take the form of accommodation/adaptation.
Bruce Krajewski is the author of Traveling with Hermes: Hermeneutics and Rhetoric. He received the Scaglione Prize of the Modern Language Association for his edition of Gadamer on Celan.